My husband and I have a new vacation hobby – browsing antique stores. While we are in no way knowledgeable about what we are looking at, we enjoy looking around at old furniture, imagining what old kitchens looked like, and reading old letters or signs. We like to look for unique old pieces to mix in with our new and more modern furniture to give our home an eclectic and lived in feel. So far, we have only made two purchases from antique stores, mainly due to limited space and a tight budget. Our rule is that the item we select must be usable or repurposed in some way. So far, we have gotten a hand painted planter set for a kitchen herb garden and a cast iron dutch oven – both of which we have already put to use! I was so excited about the dutch oven because it is pre-seasoned from years of use, and came at a far lower price tag than the pretty enameled ones that I have always looked at. I like using dutch ovens over regular pots when meals require long cooking time, since the thick bottom holds the heat evenly and results in less sticking to the bottom. So far, I have used my pot to make Frugal Feeeding’s Greek Lamb with Orzo (I made this for Easter but it would make a lovely Mother’s Day meal!) and Bon Appetit’s Vinegar Braised Chicken.
For my braised chicken, I served it over homemade pasta to recreate a favorite restaurant meal. It was delicious, and would be another great meal to honor the special women in your lives! I used leg quarters and picked the large bones out prior to serving to create an easier to eat pasta dish. The ratios in the dish can be easily reduced if you do not want to make 5 lbs of chicken (I halved it to serve 4 people). The chicken would also taste great over rice, cous cous, or quinoa if pasta is not your mom’s favorite! Either way, I hope you all get to spend a beautiful weekend celebrating mothers, grandmothers, daughters and good friends who have helped to shape and mold you. I am especially thankful for my mom and the time we have gotten to spend together over the past two months!
Question: What are you doing to celebrate Mother’s Day?
I am excited to share that I have my own apartment again! Our move-in date is still a month away, but I am beyond excited to begin preparing to move again. We have gotten so many beautiful gifts from our wedding that I am excited to find a home for! It has been fun to start dreaming of how to make our new apartment a home (we are hoping not to move again for the next 4 years if possible!), but it can also be expensive. We took our first trip to IKEA last week, and even the small and inexpensive pieces add up. Since we are working on a tight budget and have some free time, I have been tackling a few DIY projects and getting back in touch with my creative side.
My first successful project has been turning old ceramic backsplash tiles into trivets (or, if you are like my husband, the things you set hot dishes on when you serve dinner). I have seen so many trivets that I love from online stores, but they all seem to come with a hefty price tag that I cannot afford. While these don’t quite fit into the “necessary and willing to pay for” line of our moving budget, they also are something that I would really like to have. I was inspired by one of my mom’s own trivets that is essentially a large decorative tile with feet, and knew that I could make something similar at a far smaller price tag!
Before starting, I headed to Michael’s to pick up some acrylic paint and brushes. I like Folk Art Multi-surface paint for any kitchen projects. It is a bit more than the store brand, but the paint is thicker and has a smoother finish, and it also has the best (and longest lasting) results when baked in the oven. To start my project, I lightly washed the tiles with soap and water. After letting them dry for 10 minutes, I lightly wiped the surface with rubbing alcohol. While they dried, I set up my workspace with newspaper, a color “palette” made out of the side of a cardboard box, water and paper towels to clean my brushes, and my dishes for pattern inspiration. I practiced a few flowers before beginning, and decided that it was less work to freehand the flowers than it was to create stencils. If you are less confident in your painting skills, I have used some great stencils for other projects before. They add a bit in up front cost, but if you will use them for multiple DIY projects than they can be worth the investment. You can also create your own stencils with card stock and an exacto knife, but this is time-consuming and works better for larger DIY projects.
After feeling confident in my painted flowers, I began to paint my tiles. I am not so much of a plan-ahead type of painter, and prefer to add slowly and let my design flow organically. I started with one large flower on each tile, then added vines, leaves, and smaller accent flowers until I was satisfied with each tile.
Once all of the tiles were complete, I transferred them to a cold oven. Then I turned the oven on to 350 F and allowed it to heat. (Do NOT put your project in a pre-heated oven!) This step allows the most even baking of the paint, and also prevents your project from cracking (a step that is more important when working with glass and fragile ceramics, but you can never be too careful!) After your oven comes to temperature, set the timer for 30 minutes and allow the tiles to bake. Once baked, allow to cool completely in the oven. The following morning, I added self-adhesive foam dots to the bottom corners of the tiles to raise them slightly off the table.
They are now awaiting a test run in my new kitchen! I love that they match my new dishes, and that they are pretty enough to be used to add some color and decoration to my new kitchen! This is a fun project that can be simplified as much or as little as you want to! I also think the painting part would be fun to do with kids! Even better, I made 4 trivets for less than one store bought trivet (about $18 for 6 acrylic paints, paint brushes, and foam dots). If you do not have old ceramic tiles, they are inexpensive at any home improvement store and will only add $1-2 per tile to your project!
Question: Are you a DIY home decorator? What has been your most successful project?
My next project? Refinishing new-to-me furniture!
Fancy meals do not always have to be rich and heavy, as proven by this fantastic Friday night treat. Pasta and steak dishes always seem to corner the market on romantic meals, but I dislike the heavy “food coma” feeling that they often leave you with. My favorite choice for a date-night at home is seafood, since they often are quick to prepare and do not feel so weighty. This meal was again inspired by an appetizer I enjoyed on our honeymoon, where the chef perfectly seared tiny bay scallops and served them over a spicy and delicious eggplant salad. While this does not perfectly recreate the fantastic eggplant salad I enjoyed, it improves on the scallops with larger sea scallops that seem to melt in your mouth when cooked properly. If you are new to scallops, Alton Brown has a great basic tutorial that I love. Scallops can be a little pricy and turn rubbery very quickly if cooked for too long, but are worth the cost when prepared correctly. For your next stay-at-home date, try out this dinner!
Scallops with Roasted Red Peppers and Spicy Eggplant
6 vegetable servings, scallops vary depending on amount
For the Red Pepper and Eggplant Salad:
3 large red bell peppers
1 large or 2 small (about 1.5 lbs) eggplant
8 oz baby bella mushrooms, quartered
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp red chili flakes
2-3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
For the scallops:
1/3 to 1/2 lb scallops per person
2-4 tbsp butter (depending on lbs of scallops)
Preheat the broiler in the oven. Half the red peppers and remove the stems and seeds. Lay cut-side down in a shallow baking dish and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the oven for 15-18 minutes, until peppers are soft and the skin is charred. Transfer immediately to a large plastic zip bag and let cool for 10 minutes. Submerge peppers in cold water one at a time while removing the skins. Peppers can be prepared one to two days ahead of time, if desired.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Roughly dice peppers and peeled eggplant into 1-inch pieces. Quarter the mushrooms. Mix all vegetables in a large roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and red pepper flakes, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, stirring every 15-20 minutes, for 45-55 minutes, or until eggplant is at desired consistency according to your preference.
When the vegetables are roasting, rinse and pat dry scallops. Preheat a cast iron or heavy skillet over medium heat. Add butter and allow to melt. Add scallops, searing for approximately 2 minutes per side. The skillet should be hot enough to create a browned curst in a short time. Squeeze lemon half over scallops and remove to serving tray. Serve with eggplant and pepper mixture with brown rice.
One of the benefits of this little extended vacation before residency starts is the slow mornings. While our days seem to be filled with endless piles of paperwork (marriage license hiccups, name changes, residency paperwork, apartment applications… it never ends!), we have been starting each day slowly with really good coffee. I got Dan a Beehouse pour-over coffee dripper and burr coffee grinder for Christmas, and we have been enjoying getting good use out of it these past few months. We first got hooked on this coffee-brewing method at The Thinking Cup near the Boston Commons. Dan was intrigued by the science behind it – they used kitchen scales, electric kettles with thermometers and long spouts, and timers to brew the perfect cup of coffee. While we don’t get quite that fancy at home, we have found that pour-over coffee is worth the extra few minutes, when you have them.
From some reading I have been doing for this blog post, I have learned that this coffee brewing method is originally from Japan and has taken off in the US because of the low cost of the associated equipment. While espresso is a much more well known international coffee style, there is a high cost of equipment for DIYers. Pour-over kits can be assembled gradually, and the parts are relatively inexpensive. A good coffee dripper will run around $15-30, and you can be as fancy or as simple with the grinders and kettles as you want.
The magic of pour-over coffee comes from the small brew method and slow pour. As a coffee-enthusiast, you can control every step – from the bean (we prefer a light roast with more earthy flavors), the coarseness of the grind (we find that a medium grind works well), the temperature and amount of water, all the way up to the length of brew time. Each cup that you brew is unique, and somewhat maker-dependent, which can be both a good and bad thing depending on who you ask. The most important thing we have learned making this style of coffee is the slow pour, as this is what sets it apart from regular drip coffee. American coffee machines, while noteworthy for their convenience, work by pouring a single batch of boiling water over the coffee grounds and then dripping through the filter. This initial boiling water bath can create bitterness that many dislike about American drip coffee. It also does not fully utilize the flavors from the coffee beans as it creates a thick cake that prevents all of the grounds from soaking. Making pour-over coffee allows you to hand pour the hot (not quite boiling) water over the beans in a pulsatile method. (source) The resulting cup of coffee is free of the bitterness that many people dislike about American-style coffee, and is rich and flavorful with a smooth finish. Even my Dad, a dedicated milk-and-sugar kind-of guy, will happily drink pour-over coffee black.
There are plenty of great informative articles out there, from the history of pour-over coffees to comparisons of different drippers to the basic how-to instructions for how to make the perfect cup of coffee. If you enjoy a good cup of coffee or are looking for alternative ways to brew yourself a single cup of coffee, I would highly recommend making the small equipment investment! We have started with a basic dripper and coffee grinder, and currently use an electric kettle to boil the water and a spouted Pyrex measuring glass for the pour. Eventually, we may expand our gadgets but are more than happy to enjoy our simplified, homemade version for now!
If you are not a coffee fan but are still looking for a slow morning treat, then try out these muffins! I adapted the recipe from my mom’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine to use some dying bananas, and have been greatly enjoying the subtle chocolate flavor and how it compliments my coffee! Do not be intimidated by the name – these muffins are not overly sweet or heavy, and the cocoa comes across more in color than taste. If you are looking for a more decadent treat, try adding chocolate chips or walnuts for a more dessert-like breakfast muffin!
Question: What is the best cup of coffee you have ever had?
Dark Chocolate Banana Muffins
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens (April 2014)
makes 12 large muffins
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2/3 cup milk
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
3 tbsp melted butter
2 overripe bananas, mashed
handful walnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin tray; set aside. In a stand mixer, combine all dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine milk, yogurt, eggs and melted butter. Add to dry ingredients in the stand mixer; stir until just moistened. Add the mashed bananas and mix until combined. Spoon batter into muffin cups, filling 3/4 full. Bake for 16-18 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes, then use butter knife to loosen. Store in air-tight container.
When it comes to meat and fish, my family often falls prey to what seems to plague much of White America. We only eat certain cuts of certain meats, and most definitely avoid anything on the bone. This is especially true of seafood. When my husband asked my mom if she would be willing to try a new way of eating fish, she told us, “Only as long as I don’t have to look my dinner in the eye.” I used to whole-heartedly agree with my mom, and was repulsed at the market where the fish seemed to stare back at me, daring me to eat them. Now, I have learned how delicious (and sometimes fresher and more economical) whole fish can be. I have come a long way from my first whole fish experience in Croatia!
When it comes to this method of cooking fish, it all starts with the quality of the ingredient. I am lucky enough to have found two great local fish markets (Keyport Fishery for anyone in the central NJ region and New Deal Fish Market for anyone in the Boston area). My husband is the expert in our house when it comes to choosing fish, but he has taught me a few basic rules. First, the smell of the fish really does tell you if the fish is fresh. While there will always be a mild fishy aroma, it should not smell unpleasant or so strong you can smell the fish at a distance. You can also tell a lot about a fish (or at least the freshness) through its eyes – they should be clear and in tact. Lastly, we have found it helpful to call the fishery the night before or morning of to ask about what fish they have gotten, or are expecting to get, fresh that day. Getting there early can ensure you get the best selection from what they have.
For fish preparation, I prefer to have the fishery help me out. Most good fisheries should be able to gut, scale, and take the fins off the fish before sending you home with it. This saves a lot of prep and mess, and ensures that you don’t ruin the beautiful fish you just worked so hard to pick! When planning how much fish to buy to feed your guests, remember that a bit of fish weight is made up of the head and bones. A 1.5lb fish will generally feed one hungry person, in our experience, and generally runs $8-$12 per pound, depending on season and type of fish.
Our favorite fish to prepare whole is Bronzino, also known as European sea bass. However, we chose a beautiful Red Snapper for this dinner. We wanted to prepare a special Caribbean-inspired dinner as a thank you to my parents for watching our dog, and Snapper lends well to island flavors. The fishery had just received whole snappers that morning, so we got choice pick. The fish were HUGE, and we walked away with the baby of the bunch – a 5.5lb beauty. First, we scored the fish diagonally to help infuse flavor. We then rubbed the skin and inside of the fish with garlic, allspice, thyme, salt and pepper. While we usually pan-fry whole fish to get a nice crispy skin, there was no skillet big enough for this guy. We created a foil boat and cooked our fish in a bit of canola oil on the grill over high heat for about 25 minutes, requiring a bit more cooking time since it was so thick in the middle. At the end, we spooned a bit of the boiling canola oil over the skin to make it crispier.
The result was spectacular. Not only was the fish beautiful, but it was also tender, moist and delicious. Since we had the whole fish, we got to enjoy the most tender and most underused parts (my favorite are the cheeks). Our dinner was rounded out with coconut rice and Brazilian style Collard greens and finished with grilled pineapple, all complimented by Antiguan style Rum punch.
We combined a few recipes and resources to make this meal happen, listed below if you are interested in trying this out! We have deemed Fridays to be “fresh fish Fridays” to take advantage of shore-living while we can, so hopefully some more great meals are to come!
Question: Are you a whole fish fan? Do you have any tips to share for choosing or preparing the perfect whole fish?
When we arrived in Antigua, we were immediately greeted at our hotel with the hot, island air and a nice, strong Antiguan rum punch. We knew immediately that we were in paradise. After a week of rum punches and island sun, we decided that Caribbean rum and a homemade version of our new favorite drink would be the best souvenir to commemorate our honeymoon! The recipe below replicates our island favorite almost exactly! Today, we celebrate my husband’s admission to medical school and signing the lease to our first apartment! Hope you enjoy.
Question: What do you have to celebrate today?
Antiguan Rum Punch
makes 1 pitcher (serves 4-6)
1/2 cup lime juice (best when fresh squeezed)
1 cup simple syrup (simply boil 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar together until sugar is fully dissolved)
1 1/2 cups Cavalier Antiguan gold rum (or a similar light rum)
2 cups water
2-4 cups ice
Angostura bitters, key lime halves, and nutmeg (fresh grated if possible) for garnish
Prepare the simple syrup and allow to cool. Mix together lime juice, simple syrup, rum, and water. Pour over ice into a large pitcher. Add 2-3 ice cubes to an old fashioned glass with a key lime half. Fill with rum punch, then sprinkle with bitters and top with nutmeg. Swirl slightly before enjoying! (To make a single rum punch, mix 1 part (1/2 shot) lime juice, 2 parts (1 shot) simple syrup, 3 parts (1.5 shots) rum, and 4 parts (2 shots) water.)
The weather is finally starting to warm up in the New Jersey, getting me excited for grilling season! While many people think of seasons in terms of weather, I often think in term of food seasons. The fall and winter are roasting seasons, perfect for root vegetables and hearty meals; the spring and summer are grilling ones, great for fish and grilled peppers, zucchini, and eggplant. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing I like better than both cooking and eating outdoors when the weather allows. However, I will miss my oven, which usually goes neglected from May through September to keep the house cool. If you are looking for a final oven meal to warm up with during cooler early spring nights, this one is a great staple!
I found a basic roasted chicken recipe in one of my mom’s many food magazines. (Being on this extended vacation is seriously great for my cooking creativity!) I tweaked it slightly to use up what I had on hand, but have so many ideas for variations! I used red onion and thyme as called for in the original recipe, but decided to use chicken thighs and baby bella mushrooms for a bit more flavor and earthiness. I think that shallots or Vidalia onions would actually be even better than the red onions, and that a little more garlic would be welcome. I would also love to play with the herbs, switching out the thyme for rosemary or basil. If you aren’t a mushroom person, you could easily leave them out, or add some cherry tomatoes in their stead. Since I am currently cooking for 4-6 people on a regular basis, I couldn’t quite make it a one-skillet meal, but think this would be an easy task if cooking for one or two! Just throw some cubed potatoes (parboiled to make them cook at the same time), vegetables (I love asparagus and Brussels sprouts in the oven), and the chicken thighs into an oven safe skillet and bake!
Question: What is your favorite “food season?”
Roasted Chicken Thighs with Mushrooms and Red Onions
2 tbsp olive oil
1 – 1.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs (organic if possible)
1 red onion, sectioned
8 oz baby bella mushrooms, halved
salt, pepper and thyme to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Heat olive oil over high heat. Quickly sear the outside of each chicken thigh over high heat. Add red onion sections and mushroom halves, then season to taste with salt, pepper, and thyme. Place skillet in oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until chicken thighs are cooked through. Remove and allow to cool prior to serving.